Real Salt Lake: Race for Supporters’ Shield, seeding heats up
Sandy • Now it gets serious.
This Major League Soccer season has waded through the frigidness of late winter and early spring, through the breaks surrounding the FIFA World Cup and into the dog days of summer. The season is long and taxing — it always is — but the end of the regular season is fast approaching, and playoff chatter has begun. Parity is again the most significant storyline with as many as eight teams within striking distance of the league’s Supporters’ Shield trophy and conference titles with roughly 10 weeks left of the regular season.
Real Salt Lake, qualifiers of the postseason for the last six seasons, is right there. The club seems to have wiggled its way out of the summertime funk and sits two points behind the league-leading Seattle Sounders, who make their only regular-season visit to Rio Tinto Stadium Saturday in a nationally televised match on NBC Sports.
This 1 vs. 2 matchup will go a long way in determining how the West is won.
"This is a pivotal game in the Supporters’ Shield race," defender Tony Beltran said. "If we get three points out of this game, it really puts us back in there. [It looked like] Seattle would run away with it there for a while, but we’re within striking distance. It’s something we want, something we’ve never achieved and when it’s in sight, you’ve got to grasp it."
There is no understating how massive three points would be for RSL. The Sounders (13-6-2) remain two points clear at 41 through 21 matches, but have two matches in hand on RSL (10-4-9), who sit at 39 points through 23 outings. It’s the definition of a six-point match, as RSL coach Jeff Cassar has dubbed it.
A win vaults RSL atop the West temporarily by a point, while a loss drops RSL to five points out of first place and staring at a showdown on the road with third-place FC Dallas next Friday.
"We’re starting to sniff around the Supporters’ Shield, we’re starting to sniff around first place and I think that’s what’s really important," Cassar said.
Undefeated in its last five matches at 3-0-2, RSL is enjoying its longest unbeaten streak this year since its record-breaking 12-game start to 2014 ended — ironically — at Seattle in a resounding 4-0 loss on May 31. The club has won back-to-back outings for the first time since May 11 and 17, which has helped propel RSL’s trophy hopes to the forefront. During its five-game unbeaten streak, RSL has surrendered three goals and achieved consecutive shutouts in its recent victories.
"The commitment from the guys — I wouldn’t say it’s night and day — but I would say the commitment has been definitely touched on and you can see it on the field," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "When you have all 11 guys committed to defense and winning the balls in the right spaces and attacking as a team, defensively, you get better."
To remain in the hunt for the Supporters’ Shield and the Western Conference regular-season crown — both of which serve as CONCACAF Champions League qualifying avenues — RSL must find ways to consistently pick up points against conference rivals. Of the final 11 regular-season matches, RSL faces every team in the West except L.A. at least once.
Saturday is just the beginning.
"We can’t get too involved in what team has what amount of points and how many games they’ve played," midfielder Ned Grabavoy said. "We need to focus on ourselves and keep trying to pick up points along the way. I think we’ve done a good job in that this season in not getting carried away with these marquee matchups."
Seattle Sounders at RSL
O At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
TV » NBCSN; Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 10-4-9; Seattle 13-6-2
Series history » RSL 5-4-4 in all competitions against Seattle
Last meeting » Seattle 4, Real Salt Lake 0 (May 31 at CenturyLink Field)
About RSL » Midfielder Javier Morales remains a game-time decision for Saturday’s clash with Seattle due to a hip injury sustained against D.C. United last Saturday. … All-time leading scorer Alvaro Saborio is out of his walking boot and rehabbing his fractured foot sustained on May 29. … Goalkeeper Nick Rimando now stands alone as the all-time shutout king in MLS with 113 clean sheets after back-to-back shutouts over Colorado and D.C. United. … Seattle’s 4-0 win over RSL on May 31 did not feature captain Kyle Beckerman, Rimando or Saborio, who were either injured or with their respective national teams.
About Seattle » Forward Obafemi Martins, who scored a goal in the Sounders’ 4-0 win over RSL on May 31, will miss the match Saturday due to yellow-card accumulation. … Martins is second on Seattle with eight league goals in 2014. … Clint Dempsey leads the team in goals scored and makes his Rio Tinto debut as a club player. … The last time Dempsey played in Utah with his club was Sept. 3, 2005, when the New England Revolution topped RSL 1-0 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. … Preseason trialist and Mexican World Cup veteran Gonzalo Pineda leads the team in assists with six in 2014. … The Sounders qualified for their fifth U.S. Open Cup final in six seasons Wednesday by thumping Chicago 6-0 in the semifinal match.